Earlier this month I was invited by Trevor of the Mookse and the Gripes to be a guest on Episode 6 of his (and his brother Brian’s) monthly podcast. The book under discussion: The NYRB Classics edition of The Sun King by Nancy Mitford.
To begin with – I am fascinated by the Mitfords. Something you may have caught on to if you listened in on the podcast. Six sisters, and none of them boring. One was a brilliant writer; two Fascists; one a Communist (and muckraker-journalist); one married & divorced a scientist/millionaire playboy and then went on to live openly (and much more happily) with her female partner; and one became a duchess. It does sound a bit like a twisted nursery rhyme.
The Mitford are something of an industry in (and out of) the UK. All six were beautiful, witty, fashionable and remarkably unpleasant based on what they reveal in their letters to each other. And while I’d most likely have hated them if we’d ever met, from a distance they glimmer with a kind of faerie glamor. They are the Kardashians of the London Blitz – only more intellectual and interesting.
Nancy Mitford, the eldest, was a talented novelist and (I learned upon reading this book) biographer. Prior to The Sun King I’m embarrassed to admit to being familiar only with her novels and short stories. The most famous are the Fanny Wincham née Logan stories – The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate and Don’t Tell Alfred! Fanny, who narrates, was based on a Mitford cousin. In fact, any reader familiar with the Mitford’s will recognize several of the characters. And, be warned, most readers quickly become familiar with the family history. It’s difficult to avoid it. The stories are packed with auto-biographical references, which in turn further contributes to the Mitford mystique – something I’ve read that the surviving sisters were very aware of. There is an incestuous relationship between biography and fiction in everything Nancy wrote. The fact is that nothing is ever quite as fascinating to a Mitford as a Mitford.
Vanity aside, the books are ridiculously entertaining. I frequently recommend Nancy Mitford novels to friends who enjoy Jane Austen, BBC costume dramas and Wodehouse.
And now I can begin recommending the biographies as well. The Sun King is written in the same irreverent tone with which the author approached her fiction. “Scandalous” is an adjective that frequently comes to mind. There is a definite tabloid quality in how she tells the stories of Louis XIV’s many mistresses, the fates of his children (legitimate and not) and the vying for the King’s favor amongst the nobles of the French court. The wars fought during his reign, the Spanish throne (which was filled by Louis’ grandson, Philip V of Spain), the revocation of the Edict of of Nantes and the subsequent violent persecution of Protestants – all of this is secondary in importance to the scandals of Versailles.*
Mitford often breezes past important historical events, focussing instead on witty little anecdotes and one liners that would make a Hollywood action scriptwriter drool. For example, regarding the King’s frequent change of mistresses – “the Marquise de Maintenon, meeting the Marquise de Montespan on the Queen’s staircase, remarked in her dry way: ‘You are going down, Madame? I am going up.’ “
Sharp, witty, a little mean – these are Nancy Mitford hallmarks. And she doesn’t disappoint here, delivering acidic observations starting on page one. “Louis XIV fell in love with Versailles and Louise de La Vallière at the same time; Versailles was the love of his life.”
What makes this biography successful is the authorial voice – so recognizable to those of us who love the novels. And let’s be honest, few people are going to pick up The Sun King strictly for the history (which even Philip Mansel in the introduction admits is sketchy in places). Much more thorough books exist on this subject. But that doesn’t make what history it does discuss any less fascinating. And, in the hands Mitford, any less entertaining. Quite the opposite.
The audio edition of The Sun King, published by The NYRB Classics and narrated by Charlton Griffin is a wonderful listen. The hours fly by, with Griffin using just the right tone and keeping with the overall gossipy feel of the author’s prose. And I’m sure reading the print edition – on a lazy Sunday afternoon at home or poolside on vacation – would be just as enjoyable. And added bonus: The Sun King also works as a gateway to heavier, more scholarly tomes on the subject. It’s a wonderful, relaxing way to pass a few hours. And, when it’s done, you can’t help but think: how VERY Mitford it all was.
To listen to Trevor, Brian & my discussion of The Sun King follow the link to The Mookse & The Gripes Podcast, Episode 6.
Publisher: The NYRB Classics, New York (2013)
ISBN: 978 1 590 17491 3